One of my favorite artists is Sam Maloof, the remarkable Arab American woodworker.
I personally would favor calling Sam an artist, but he hated that word. Even when he received the MacArthur Fellowship award, he said
“I guess if you can’t sit on a chair or can’t eat off of a table or can’t
use a set of drawers, it’s art. Today I have a lot of friends who hand you a
card and it’s artist in wood or everything but being a woodworker, and I don’t consider myself an artist. I never have. I’m a furniture maker, I’m a
woodworker, and I think woodworker’s a very good word, and I like the word, it’s an honest word, and that is what I am, a woodworker.”
I met Sam back in the early 90s. I was in California for a break from the constant Pacific Northwest rain and called him to see if I could stop by his studio. Back then I was a
manager for the Northwest Woodworking Gallery and curating a chair show for the
I had gotten, on loan from a local college, several well known chairs and my evil boss told me I would not be able to get a Maloof chair. So being young and stupid, I went to the library, got the Maloof phone number from the directory and called him to make an appointment to see him while I was on vacation.
He said yes, gave me a personal tour of his studio and home, showing me handmade doorknobs, carved spiral staircases, and secret reading rooms full of books. I later found out that his house was on the National Registry and was slated to be moved piece by piece to a new location due to a highway expansion project. He was worried that his orchard in his back yard would not survive the move.
I even met Alfreda Maloof, who showed me her Native American pottery collection in their bedroom and made us salads which we ate in their warm kitchen with its funny loose brick floor. For you young’uns out there, I need to stop here and remind you that back then we didn’t have Wikipedia at our fingertips. I had no idea his rocking chair was in the White House. No clue that a piece of his is registered with the Library of Congress. How I wish someone had told me that he’d dined with presidents and ambassadors across the world. He welcomed me to his home like I was a queen and talked about our Arab heritage and how proud we should be of
who we are because of our parents and God.
Sam did give me a rocking chair for the chair show at the gallery, and he
threw in a chair and ottoman that I was allowed to sell. I made my evil boss pay for the shipping.
I sold the chair and ottoman to Mary and Jon Shirley after the show. Mary
passed away this weekend and my brain has traced the lines back to re-live other fond memories of Sam (a chance meeting and heartfelt hug at his Renwick Gallery Smithsonian show in Washington, DC and his support behind my Arab Artists Resource & Training nonprofit organization). This week is also my one year anniversary of my own baba’s death, Allah’yarhamho. So for all the families out there experiencing a loss, my prayers are out to you.
As for Mary’s family, please share my condolences and prayers to Jon. I want to thank him for opening up his home to the Seattle Art Museum’s
Docents a few years ago. I weep with joy in the garden when I realized how
lucky you were to be surrounded by breathtaking art. Mary is now in a better place full of even more art.
I leave you all with this quote from Sam in an interview.
Interviewer – Can you share a “secret of the trade” with us–something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of
experience? Put another way–what do you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?
Sam Maloof – There are no secrets. That it was going to be difficult.